"All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
– Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina)
What Is Family Dysfunction?
Everyone's family had its own way of doing things and looking at life together. This carries over into our adult lives and our new relationships and families. Our new families become a blend of our original family and our partner's. So, what do dysfunctional styles look like and how do the members of a dysfunctional family tend to behave? What do they do to cope that also keeps the pattern going?
"Dysfunctional" has become an overused and poorly defined word in our modern vocabulary, so how should we understand it? A family where chronic conflict, abuse, neglect addiction or acting out are an everyday part of life is dysfunctional. Dysfunctional families are full of "drama" and are crisis prone. They always seem on the verge of having one or more members going into "fight-or-flight". There is a lot of shared emotional distress, and sometimes this means that it is acted out in neglect and abuse.
Children from dysfunctional families often assume that their family is mostly or fairly normal. They don't have the experience to understand any differently. They work at finding a way to survive or cope with all the ups and downs. They do the best they can to control themselves and the situation.
A Few Unhappy Real-World Observations
- Boys who witness domestic violence in their own home are three times more likely to become batterers.
- Children of alcoholics are much more likely to perpetuate the cycle of alcoholism in their own lives. They have a four-fold increased risk of becoming alcoholics as adults when compared with the general public.
- Someone's dysfunctional personal behavior becomes a model for or example to the next generation. This cycle can be repeated over and over again.
- Most experts believe that children who are raised in abusive homes learn that violence is an effective way to resolve conflicts and problems.
How Do Dysfunctional Family Members Relate to Each Other?
People who come from dysfunctional families often lack self-confidence and have problems with self-respect. They often experience a tense mistrust in close relationships. Parents and kids have problems understanding and handling authority and accountability. Bitterness and resentment, especially between the parents, is frequent.
Members seldom feel safe or that they can act in "natural" unguarded ways. There is chronic underlying anxiety about getting hurt or having to deal with yet another crisis. Dysfunctional family members, especially parents, rarely apologize and tend to prefer to blame others or circumstances for what's happened. Expressing emotions in a healthy way is difficult.
Why Are Families Dysfunctional?
Dysfunctional families are the way they are for a variety of reasons. Here are a few:
It's all the family members have ever known. The parents grew up with dysfunction, so they are using the only coping skills and life strategies they're really familiar with. Much of what is happening has been happening for generations.
Dysfunctional families often have serious financial issues. Often job skills, education and career choices are limited by the previous generation's dysfunction. Money issues can also be exaggerated by bad spending habits and substance abuse. The financial roller coaster often leads to fighting.
Violence, Neglect and Abuse
There is a history of physical, emotional or sexual violence and abuse. It may or may not be fully enacted in the current generation, but a history of it is still making an impact. It contributes to fear, destructive behavior and new violence between the parents and towards the children.
Rigid Belief Systems
If the parents have strong idealistic or religious beliefs that leave no room for conversation, questions or explanations, they may try to force those beliefs on their children. They tend to become authoritarian and controlling toward the children and often limit their ability to interact with or "be like" their peers.
Signs That You Were Raised in a Dysfunctional Family
If you're not sure you had a dysfunctional family, here are some signs you can check yourself for:
You're a People Pleaser
If you find yourself constantly saying yes to people or go out of your way to please them, it might be a sign that you're from a dysfunctional family.
If you're nice for the sake of being nice and you sacrifice your needs to make everyone else happy, that may be a sign, too.
If you have to have everything perfect or "just so," it may be because you are afraid of disappointing others or trying to avoid any room for criticism. This too may be a sign of growing up in a dysfunctional family.
You're Constantly Feeling Guilty
If you feel guilty for other people's situations or behavior (which aren't in your control) then that may be a sign. You tend to feel guilty when others are upset even if you aren't in any way responsible.
You Don't Communicate Emotions Well
If you do not know how to reliably communicate emotions in a healthy way with your friends and family or you tend to shut down and not address things, chances are you have grown up in a dysfunctional family.
You're Hard on Yourself
No matter what you do or achieve, you are your harshest critic and you always criticize yourself first. If anything is wrong, it is always your fault for some reason. You always feel that you could have and should have done better.
You're Always Anxious or Worried
Even when things are going well, you're worried that something will go wrong. You're rarely able to enjoy yourself very much or for very long.
You Frequently Feel Isolated, Empty or Meaningless
You probably lacked real emotional support as a child and now you feel isolated, unfulfilled or empty. You're constantly seeking affection and belonging, and you have a hard time being by yourself.
You're Frustrated or Aggravated All the Time
No matter how good life is, you can always find something wrong, and you're not dissatisfied with. You often feel your efforts are unappreciated or that you aren't getting enough credit.
You're Generally Pessimistic
You tend to feel helpless or hopeless about the future or your chances for things to ever be really good. Your thoughts easily turn negative. You look at life from a pessimistic perspective. As far as you're concerned, clouds do not have silver linings, ever.
Common Features of a Dysfunctional Family
Dysfunctional families have some common characteristics. Here are a few:
Lack of Communication
Members of a dysfunctional family don't openly communicate with each other and often have serious communication problems. They sweep issues under the rug and never talk about them. They often shout and have huge screaming fights which can get violent.
Family members don't really listen to each other and may resort to other ways to make a point. Drama is constant and being right is what counts the most. This often means everyone is trying to have the last or loudest word.
Lack of Empathy
In a family which is dysfunctional, there is little or no empathy. This tends to leave its members feeling isolated and misunderstood. It usually leaves the children feeling bad or shameful about themselves. Feeling loved depends on unclear rules or trying to make others happy no matter what.
If either of the parents is authoritarian or perfectionistic, the kids will always be afraid of getting in trouble for even the smallest mistakes. There is no room for error or trying something out. There's a constant fear of failure.
Being Prone to Addiction
Children who have seen their parents drinking heavily, using drugs or smoking often end up doing it too in order to cope just like their parents.
Mental Health Issues
Children who grow up watching the adults around them suffering from mental illnesses and personality disorders often do not know how to cope or behave like adults because they've never seen much of it. They also tend to suffer from the same illnesses because of genetics.
When parents try to over control their children's lives, they make it harder for them to grow as people. They are also encouraging them to rebel. This can lead to self-doubt and trust issues, too.
Perfectionism and Criticism
Dysfunctional parents often end up putting a lot of pressure on their kids to perform. Fear of failure haunts the children, and they tend to grow up to be perfectionists. They keep trying to minimize criticism and the loss of love and approval. They wind up lacking self-confidence and self-respect and they become highly self-critical.
Lack of Independence and Privacy
Dysfunctional parents may invade a child's privacy and work to ensure that they have little or no independence in making decisions. They may intrusively check at any time or severely limit their opportunities to be with peers or to be in an unsupervised situation.
Lack of Emotional Support
Since there is little or no empathy, there is little or no room for emotions or support. There's no safe way for kids to express their emotions clearly and in a positive way. The kids often grow up lonely and emotionally isolated. They will continue having trouble communicating feelings and feeling emotionally supported in their adult relationships.
The Effects of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family
Mistrust, anxiety, depression and other chronic negative emotions are common for people growing up in a dysfunctional family. Many times, this leads to being an insecure adult.
There are a number of common behavior patterns seen in people who come from dysfunctional families. They include:
- Having a bad self-image, lack of self-confidence and self-respect.
- Finding it hard to create healthy adult relationships, being shy or having a personality disorder.
- Getting angry frequently and easily and preferring to be alone.
- Performing poorly in school because of struggling to concentrate and focus.
- Engaging in self-harm or other self-destructive behaviors.
- Being prone to addictions to drugs, alcohol, smoking and other compulsive behaviors.
- Suffering from serious mental conditions like depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Being irresponsible and lacking self-discipline or being overly responsible and perfectionistic.
How to Overcome the Effects of Your Dysfunctional Family
If you've come to recognize you grew up in a dysfunctional family, there are a number of ways to deal with it. Here's how:
As an adult, you have the choice to overcome your circumstances and work towards creating a healthier emotional life. You can start by taking responsibility for your actions and learning how to set and meet reasonable goals for yourself.
Seek professional help or help from other healthy trustworthy people. Dealing with abuse, neglect, trauma, anxiety, depression and other childhood issues can be hard. It always helps to have support from your family and friends whenever possible. In a safe environment share your thoughts and talk about how you can rebuild trust and relationships. Start with baby steps and work toward forgiving your family wherever you can.
Practice and Be Patient
Healthy living is learned by living it. Building awareness and understanding is where you start. Then it's time to practice until it becomes natural and automatic. Practice involves "trial and error," so there will be some "errors" in your practicing. That's OK, normal and to be expected. Practicing and making mistakes requires patience with yourself and others. Patience is one of the healthy functional ways of dealing with the world.
Focus on the Family suggest doing Google searches on and reading about:
- The rules of dysfunctional family systems
- Family roles or scripts
- What it means to be the: Addict, Enabler, Hero, Scapegoat, Clown or the Lost Child. (Which sound like you?)
- Adult attachment pain
- Adult children of alcoholics – even if there was no alcohol in your house.
- Boundaries in relationships
- Signs somebody may be manipulating a relationship.
Questions to Journal
- How did you feel about your family growing up? How do you feel about it now?
- If you could go back and give yourself some help or advice as a kid, what would it be?
- What do you know about your parents’ struggles growing up?
- How does knowing about their lives make it easier to understand yours?
Live on Purpose TV, How to Survive a Dysfunctional Family
Live on Purpose TV, How to Deal with Toxic Family Members
Live on Purpose TV, How to Build a Healthy Relationship – 9 Secrets
Crappy Childhood Fairy, How to Apologize Beautifully
Prayer for the Week
Help me pay attention to way I'm thinking and feeling this week, especially about myself and the people I'm connected to. I want to see where I'm sabotaging myself, isolating myself or hiding in shame. Help me see the story of my life in a new more positive and hopeful way. I want to start to understand how my story can help others more. Help me change the story of my family and break the cycle of dysfunction for my kids. Amen.